Oh Mr. Punch! What havoc have you stirred up now?
Antics of the loudmouth troublemaker Mr. Punch have come to life on puppet stages for over 350 years. The classic character always gets in some kind of trouble, and audience members always participate in the silliness.
For the next three weekends, Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy, are on stage in Hardwick as husband-and-wife duo Rose Friedman and Justin Lander’s Modern Times Theater presents the fourth annual “Saturday Storefront Puppet Show Series.”
With three new installments of “The Perils of Mr. Punch,” the mini-puppetry series features the timeless main characters and brand-new ones, conceived and made by Friedman and Lander. The versatile puppeteer-vaudeville-musician-comedy duo has performed Punch and Judy shows for a dozen years, bringing its own fast-paced witty approach to this tradition.
With the “Saturday Storefront Puppet Series,” Friedman and Lander present this new work in their hometown downtown, setting up as a pop-up theater in a former retail space. Along with the puppet shows, presented on their classic Punch and Judy puppet stage, the Saturday programs feature pre-show music with selections from Lander’s vintage 78 rpm records played on a hand-cranked gramophone, live music on instruments from ukulele to bicycle pump, and weekly special guests and activities including Cardboard Teck Instantute’s interactive cardboard “artcade.”
“The Perils of Mr. Punch” is a family show appealing to anyone from toddlers through adolescents to unaccompanied adults of all ages.
“It’s like Saturday morning cartoons, but live,” Friedman said, noting each installment is its own story, but ends with a cliffhanger that leads to the plot of the following week.
Modern Times Theater, founded by Friedman and Lander, specializes in its fresh take on entertainment styles of the past, including handmade puppet shows, novelty music and classic comedy. They perform their puppet shows at schools, libraries, theaters and events throughout Vermont and beyond. Their Vermont Vaudeville, a lively variety show, is on stage in the spring and fall.
“We are drawn to traditional forms in theater and reinventing them for the modern age,” Friedman said. With Punch and Judy puppet shows, she noted, “We were taken with the idea that there were these characters that could do so many things but there was a baseline of what people expect the characters to do.”
Familiarity with the characters and their distinct personalities is at the heart of Punch and Judy’s longevity, a tradition with roots in 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte and a trickster-type figure, Pucinella. British diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about seeing the character in a marionette show in Covent Garden on May 9, 1662. That date, in the United Kingdom, is considered Mr. Punch’s birthday. With the 19th century, Punch and Judy transitioned to hand puppets and also eventually to appeal to younger audiences.
There is a core of predictability in the shows: Punch’s outrageous behavior, struggles with his wife or baby, lots of humor and an encounter with a crocodile or other beast are expected. The framework leaves lots of room for interpretation.
“We’re reclaiming the tradition for this moment in which we live,” Friedman said. “A lot of what our Mr. Punch does in the show is about living in small-town rural Vermont — stacking wood, making maple syrup, doing traditional Vermont things.”
Having performed Mr. Punch for over a decade now, Friedman noted, many audience members have grown up with the characters.
“They know Mr. Punch is always going to make mistakes. He’s always going to do goofy, kind of selfish, ridiculous things. He tends toward the laziest and most self-centered decision he can make. But the audience tries to help him make the right choice,” Friedman said.
As always, there is a lot of audience participation, and there are plenty of surprises. While its identity is a closely held secret, there will indeed be an encounter with a beast.
“Live theater can bring people together, bringing people into the same space to laugh at the same things,” Friedman said, noting how much she and Lander value this annual opportunity to perform in their hometown and bring some of their new characters and plotlines to their community.
With this annual series, they are attentive to making it as accessible and affordable as possible, keeping ticket prices to $8 as a suggested donation.
Special guests are Jana Zeller from Sandglass Theater and art activities from GRACE March 16; Cardboard Teck Instantute’s interactive cardboard artcade March 23; and Gregory Corbino’s sideshow March 30.